While the Minnesota Twins keep their eyes on the pennant, another group of ambitious competitors are jockeying for a different prize: the team's radio rights.

Thanks to a new ballfield, a long-term contract with hometown hero Joe Mauer and an impressive start to the season, the Twins' radio contract is as valuable as a glove full of World Series rings.

"As I told [Twins President] Dave St. Peter when we made our pitch, 'Who doesn't want to be your friend right now?'" said Gregg Swedberg, operations manager for Clear Channel Minneapolis. Its sports-talk station KFAN already boasts the Vikings, and it would love Minnesota's second-most-popular squad to join the family next season.

Others in the hunt include WCCO, which was the platform for Twins baseball for more than 45 years, and KSTP, the team's partner since 2007. Then there's the wild card: B96, a pop/hip-hop FM station run by the Pohlad family, who also happen to own the Twins.

The contract won't come cheap. KSTP already ponies up $1 million a year, even though the Twins get 100 percent of revenue from ads aired during the game.

Nonetheless, radio executives are interested because the Twins offer other lucrative benefits, including ancillary programming and the sizable audience that tunes in before and after games, when stations can cash in. Baseball also plays out almost daily over a stretch of seven months, giving stations 162 opportunities a year to build their programming around a game.

"It gives your station a larger-than-life kind of thing," Swedberg said. "You bring in an audience to the game and you capitalize on that relationship with outer programming."

The numbers game

The contract's potential value is best exemplified by the number of listeners who tuned in during April, when the team had a series of day games. KSTP (1500 AM) averaged 83,300 adult listeners from 1 to 2 p.m., according to Carol Grothem, vice president/broadcast manager for Compass Point Media, a Minneapolis consulting company. That's up from 23,900 a year ago (though day games were much rarer that month).

For radio listeners, baseball is a bigger draw than football, according to Grothem.

"I think the state of radio is underrated and it looks seriously good for baseball," she said.

That makes sense to John Gordon, the radio voice for the Twins for nearly 25 years.

"Other than your relationship with your spouse, there's no better marriage than baseball and radio," Gordon said. "If you watch on TV, you have to sit in front of the set, but with radio, you can do any number of things -- cook in the kitchen, fish on the lake, work in the woodshop -- and still be tuned in."

Gordon may know more about the ball team than anyone, but he doesn't claim to have any clue which way the radio decision might go.

"We don't discuss active negotiations on any front," said St. Peter, who also refused to comment on speculation that the decision would be announced after the All-Star break in mid-July. "We've very pleased with our current radio partner and we continue to explore ways to grow our brand."

St. Peter's comment underlines KSTP's status as front runner, but more important is the station's decision in February to pick up ESPN programming and rebrand itself as a sports-talk station. (It now calls itself 1500 ESPN.)

The move was made in part to impress the Twins, admits Dan Seeman, vice president of KSTP's locally based owner, Hubbard Broadcasting.

"Part of the investment is to show the Twins that we are committed to providing them with a home where we embrace baseball," said Seeman, adding that the station will retain its all-sports format even if it doesn't keep the Twins.

The other contenders

WCCO (830 AM) also is trying to show a heightened interest in sports. Recent hires include former Timberwolves announcer Chad Hartman and veteran sports reporter Michelle Tafoya. The station's ace in the hole: It has the strongest broadcast signal in the state.

"We're really focused on the Twins. Absolutely," said general manager Mick Anselmo. "I think it's a good match."

Swedberg said that Clear Channel Minneapolis is a contender, too, but that it's unlikely the Twins would go to KFAN (1130 AM), the chain's all-sports station.

"To be honest, we already have a partnership with the Vikings, and we don't want to confuse that relationship," Swedberg said. Instead, he's proposing that the team go to one of Clear Channel's five FM stations in the metro area, which include talk station KTLK, while using the entire Clear Channel platform for promotional and charitable efforts.

Then there's the chance that the Twins could call home-field advantage and set up shop at Pohlad-owned B96 (96.3 FM). It's a strategy that's already been employed by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Steve Woodbury, who runs the station, said he hasn't had any conversations that make him think the Pohlads will follow suit.

"They don't consult me on those things," Woodbury said. "But, hey, I work for them. If that's what they want, then that's what we'll do."

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431